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Bottom line on turkey labels

November 24, 2008|Karen Ravn

Turkeys, turkeys everywhere at this time of year, and most of them Broad Breasted Whites. But those come in different varieties, and there are other kinds of turkeys too. From a health point of view, does it make any difference which you choose?

Broad Breasted White turkeys can be be conventional, free-range or organic.


Most of the birds that will wind up on tables this Thursday are these. You'll know a turkey is conventional if the label doesn't boast about being anything else. Conventional turkeys are raised in barns, free to roam around (not kept in cages) but not to go outside.


The definition of "free-range" is a little loosey-goosey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the term can be applied to any turkey that "has been allowed access to the outside." There is no requirement that the turkey has gone outside often, or at all. Such access may just mean that at times, a door is opened to a small pen attached to the barn, says Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist at UC Davis.

Some free-range turkeys do spend a good deal of time outdoors, indulging their taste for bugs. (Turkeys love bugs.) But they're given turkey feed too.


Organic turkeys eat the same sort of feed as conventional turkeys, but all of the feed ingredients have to be certified as organic. They must be free-range and can never be treated with antibiotics.


These turkeys represent a return to old-fashioned breeds: Beltsville Small Whites, Royal Palms and Standard Bronzes. They don't grow as fast or big as broad-breasted birds. Often they're raised to be free-range and organic.

What matters?

Price-wise, conventional turkeys are the best deal, free-range more expensive, organic more expensive still, and heritage generally most expensive of all. Factors to think about:

All organic turkeys must be raised without use of antibiotics. Sometimes other types of turkeys are too. "That's the most important thing to look for on the label," says microbiologist Lance Price of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix.

Antibiotic use doesn't affect nutritional value but may have consequences for public health if it fosters the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California and a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, argues that conventional turkeys are likely to get sick more often because they're raised in crowded, stressful conditions -- and thus increase a flock's exposure to antibiotics.

But Bradley says the amount of space turkeys need has been scientifically determined and the barns meet those standards.

If free-range birds spend a lot of time -- and do a lot of eating -- outdoors, they may have a better balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

Typical American diets often have too much omega-6 relative to omega-3. Some studies have shown that when cattle are fed mostly grass instead of grain, it ups the omega-3 content of beef. The same may be true for turkeys.

Because they grow more slowly, heritage birds may have more fat. And in general, female turkeys (hens) have a few more calories and a bit more fat, while males (toms) are a little saltier.

Still, there's no evidence to date of any large nutritional differences among turkey types. Daniel Fletcher, head of the Animal Science Department at the University of Connecticut, doubts that major differences exist. "Personally, I always buy the cheapest turkey I can get my hands on."

Some people do feel strongly that unconventional turkeys are superior. And just spending more for something can make it taste better, Fletcher acknowledges. "It's psychological, but that's very real."

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